Demand for Arabic-speakers fuels surge in language school enrolments
CAIRO: Tomader Rifaat has been in charge of the International Student Service Offices at AUC for 21 years, and she has never seen anything like this. “I remember 21 years ago, there were only 40 students in our study abroad program. And just a handful studied here over the summer. This week, AUC begins advising and orientation sessions for this year’s study abroad students – in total, over 400 of them.
The number of foreign students coming to Egypt to study Arabic has significantly increased over the last several years, and language schools around the city are expanding to deal with the boom. Last year, according to Rifaat, AUC did not have enough space in its 10-story Zamalek dormitory to house all the international students, so it rented an entire hotel in Doqqi to house the overflow. This year, the university has rented two hotels and moved many faculty members from university-owned apartments to make way for the new arrivals. Renting out all this space in central Cairo is a significant expense for the university, says Rifaat, “but our number one priority is accommodating international students.
Rifaat credits AUC’s popularity with international students to many factors, including the strength of its programs and its accreditation in the United States. But perhaps no other factor contributes as strongly to this trend as the demand for Arabic speakers and others with regional experience, which has sky-rocketed in America, Europe and the countries of East Asia. Without a doubt, she says, “There are more opportunities for Arabic speakers and Middle East experts now. Figures kept by the American Association of Teachers of Arabic show that the number of students enrolled in Arabic courses in U.S. universities leapt by 92 percent between 1998 and 2002. Political factors such as the American “War on Terror and the conflict in Iraq have kept the number of new Arabic students surging ever since. And at least some of those Arabic students spend some time in studying in Egypt. According to the U.S.-based Institute for International Education, the number of Americans studying abroad in Egypt grew by 26 percent between 2004 and 2005. Most estimates are that the growth held at that rate last year, and look steady for the upcoming year as well.
There is a great demand for Arabic speakers in international business and politics now, and the ever-increasing number of Arabic students reflects this trend. Some governments are even paying for their citizens to learn the language. Concerned by the shortage of Arabic speakers in the U.S. government – the State Department lists only 10 of its 34,000 employees as fluent in the language – last winter President George W. Bush launched the ambitious, $114 million National Security Languages Initiative. According to the U.S. State Department, the program helps to pay for American students and educators to study abroad and learn “critical need foreign languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Farsi and others.
In addition to government encouragement and funding, many students are tempted by the possibility of literally making a fortune as a translator or interpreter. Since the “War on Terror began, demand for Arabic speakers at defense contractors such as DynCorp International and Calnet, Inc. has grown sharply. Some of these firms offer salaries of up to $250,000 a year to qualified Arabic translators or linguists willing to work in places like Iraq or Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, translating documents and interpreting during meetings, interviews and interrogations. All of these factors have propelled the number of Arabic students in Egypt to record highs. According to Barbara Hassib, the director of the Sahafayeen-based International Language Institute, “There have never been so many Arabic institutes in the Middle East. Arabic is ‘fashionable’ now, like French, Italian and Spanish.
The increased demand for lessons has been felt at ILI, too. The Institute, an International House affiliate, has seen enrollment increase by 25 percent in the last two years. According to Hassib, the average enrollment at the school has nearly doubled in the last six years, from 70-100 students per session in the late 1990s to 130-150 students per session now.
To meet this increased demand, within the last year ILI has added several new classes, as well as six new classrooms and a small residence. Arabic schools across the Middle East are going through a similar growth spurt, says Hassib.
“Universities that once sent five or six students now send us 10 or 15, says Hassib. The Institute’s study programs are very flexible, and attract a broad mix of people including many professionals with specific goals in mind. “For example, embassies, too, have an interest in having language specialists. We’ve had students in programs of 20 months sent to us by embassies and foreign offices; they start from the beginning and leave almost two years later as specialists.
Both Hassib and Rifaat hope that by studying Arabic in Egypt, international students will bring a greater understanding of the country back home with them.
“I think increased interest in the Middle Easy and Arabic is a good thing, says Rifaat, “It’s high time that people learn about each other’s cultures. You have to see the other side of the mountain and see other people’s media and understand their points of view.
“For many people who stay longer than three months, it is hard for them to go home, says Hassib, “Because they have gotten to know the life-style here and how nice people are, and have corrected many wrong ideas they may have had about the area.
But political motivations are unavoidable. “The conflicts in the Middle East do add interest to Arabic, says Hassib. “If it were not for these factors, we would have fewer students.